September 1, 2014

Blog Birthday 3: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish...
On Hiatus in South Korea for 2014-2015

Valencia from above: Volando voy, volando vengo, vengo!
It's my blog's 3-year anniversary! I made it. I made it to three years! Who would have predicted that? It all started in September of 2011. A year passed, and I was still going. But by last year's birthday, life had caught up with me, and since then I've been barely managing my modest personal goal of one post per month. Which brings me to the big news... I'M GOING TO SOUTH KOREA!!!

As you read this, I am already there (here?) settling into my new home for 2014-2015 in Daejeon, South Korea. For the last few months I've been reading up on my host country, taking private Korean language classes (the modern Korean alphabet has an amazing history, invented in the 15th century to improve literacy!), and getting involved with the Asociación Hangul Hakyo Valencia... Yes, there is a South Korean cultural association in Valencia! Who knew!?!

I'd wager that the most famous (even iconic) Korean thing is its flag, the 'Tae-guk'.
But you probably didn't know all the complex symbolism behind it,
not just the yen and the yang, but also Daoist principles encoded in the four trigrams.

Now, don't take it personally, Writers and Bloggers About Spain lovers of Spain, but there's _no way_ I'm going to keep posting here on Spain while I'm busy exploring South Korea, Korean food (!!!), and (if time permits) the Asian continent more broadly. (And, no, I have no plans to start a blog on Korea.) You can follow my exploits abroad through my Instagram and Twitter accounts, where I'll continue to post my life like a good 21st-century exhibitionist.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to say so long and thanks for all the fish, and to direct any new passerbyers to my blog to these five highlights from the blog on Valencia and Spain, which should hopefully be relevant and useful to you over the next year while I'm away...

For those of you coming to Valencia with questions about what to do and where to stay, I direct you to this page I created, "Valencia and Fallas in a Nutshell", which lists links to all the blog entries I've written about my beloved adopted city. You might also want to "Like" my Facebook Page, where I post or repost stories related to Valencia and Spain, and where you can see my many photos posted over the last year. It is an amazing city. Many of you have written emails to me about Valencia, often with the same

If I'm in Spain for only a short time, would you recommend I visit Valencia? And for how long?
Yes! You will love it here. I'd recommend 2 days at the bare minimum. (I don't know how these cruise ships visitors do it.) 3-5 days is probably the ideal length of stay... Or a lifetime should you happen to fall in love with it. (Oh, and please consider Valencia during Fallas to be an entirely different visit. You have to see the city outside of Fallas, too.) 
If I want to learn Spanish, is Valencia a good place to do so?
It is a great place to learn Spanish! While you will see and hear Valencian (i.e. a dialect of Catalan), Spanish is the most commonly spoken language in the city, and everyone speaks it and is happy to speak it with you. 
What neighborhood(s) should I look at to live in?
I tend to recommend that newbies look in the city centre (esp. El Carmen, but also Sant Francesc if you can afford it), Russafa, or Benimaclet, depending on their spending money, tolerance of noise/excitement, etc. For a more fine-honed recommendation, take a look at this neighborhood map:
Be aware that parts of El Mercat, with its infamous “barrio chino”, 2-3 streets of prostitution (an area labeled “Velluters” on some maps), is a rough exception. (On the other hand, if you avoid those 2-3 streets, El Mercat, particularly on the big avenues, is also a nice area.) Oh, and I'd avoid living near the Valencia city beach (a.k.a. Cabanyal) no matter how much you love fun in the sun – it's a bit dodgy at night and is far from the city center and most other attractions. 
How can I get a job teaching English in Valencia/Spain?
My road to teaching English was so unconventional, that I hesitate to give advice on this. Still, a word or two of advice, since people keep asking me about it. First, the two most desirable things employers are looking for, other than being a native speaker, are: 1) a university degree (preferably in English, though I didn't have it), and 2) classroom teaching experience (of any kind... it is no small skill to know how to stand in front of people and act confident and capable). After that, the next two useful things to have are 1) some kind of English teaching certification (this is usually a must for teaching primary or secondary school in Spain, though not so important for teaching in the private academies), and 2) a willingness to teach kids (who are often the largest and most consistent student base for most academies).
Oh, and here's the usual rub: for some academies (like mine) you will need a work visa, they won't sponsor it; and for the others that are willing to hire you 'sin papeles' be ready to be treated poorly, at least in terms that you won't have social security and the pay might not be great. Of course, that's just the sober reality. The good news is that the economic crisis has been a boon for English teaching, thank you Ana Botella, so there is employment for you here somewhere. But be prepared for chronic underemployment and only part-time income at first.

(2) Fallas, a City on Fire (2)

This year I had the privilege of going behind-the-scenes on Fallas, Valencia's main festival of fire and light. There is a lot going on in this festival – before, during, and after. Skip the bull about San Fermín and learn more about Valencia as it burns with unrivaled passion during its springtime, mid-March festival. I've written a lot about it, but here are the main stories:

     • My general page on "Valencia and Fallas in a Nutshell"
     • For my most polished, professional publication on Fallas, see this article on the festival's three main industries – pirotecnia, indumentaria, and artistas falleros.
     • For a more lived narrative of Fallas, review my 2012 Hangover and 2014 Hangover posts
     • And my interview of famed artista fallero Manolo García

(3) Teaching English as a Foreign Language, a.k.a. TEFL (3)

I've spent the last few years teaching English to Spaniards. I love teaching and pedagogy, and the result is that over the years I've come up with a bunch of activities, handouts, and guides —25 in total— for how to teach different English concepts or vocabulary sets to non-native speakers. A lot of work went into making these, I found them incredibly helpful, and I want all you current and future TEFL teachers out there to profit from that labor of love. So please check out these four blog entries (including links to additional outside resources), and please use and abuse share them widely with your TEFL friends and colleagues:

     • "Teaching English as a Second Language: Ten Ready-Made Lessons" – 1) Tongue-twisters, 2) "The History of the English Language in 10-minutes", 3) Dictation exercises, 4) Christmas handouts, 5) The Amazing Verb To Get, 6) Baseball idioms, 7) Latin and Greek expressions in English, 8) grammar of "to be" and "to get", 9) "English Pronunciation" poem, 10) "In the Jungle" kid's handout
     • "Teaching English as a Second Language, part 2: Five (More) Ready-made Lessons" – 11) Family Vocab, 12) Personality Vocab, 13) Thanksgiving handouts, 14) Cinema handout, 15) Learning the language through English language songs
     • "Teaching English as a Second Language, pt. 3: Five More Ready-made Lessons" – 16) cooking, 17) Kid's ESL games, 18) Kid's travel/geography, 19) Conditional tense practice, 20) Speaking test tips
     • "Teaching English as a Second Language, pt. 4: Five Final Ready-Made Lessons" – 21) Cursing, 22) 10 Common FCE Mistakes + Saxon Genitive, 23) New Kid's Xmas handout, 24) Adjective Word Order handout, 25) How to conjugate every verb in the English language

A photo of the blackboard from one of my classes on English curse words.

(3) Spain, the Land of Excellent Beaches Mountain Hiking (3)

Did you know that after Switzerland, Spain is the European country with the greatest percent of land that is mountainous? No? Well, neither do most Spaniards. And until recently 'la marca España' was so focused on selling its beautiful beaches to Brits and Germans, which are undeniably spectacular and wonderful to visit, that it failed to promote its other notable natural splendor: its many breathtaking sierras and mountains. (Perhaps this is why Spain always fails to win bids to host the Winter Olympics, even though it has a vibrant skiing culture. Nobody believes us when we say that it snows here in some parts and Spain is not just beautiful beaches.) Here are some entries I've written about my own past adventures with this:

     • "La Alberca and the Sierra de Francia"
     • "Valle de Tena and Towns in the Spanish Pyrenees"
     • "Spanish National Parks: "Parque Nacional de Ordesa," A Natural Treasure in the Spanish Pyrenees"
     • "Linares de Mora and the Sierra de Gúdar"

Don't get me wrong. Spaniards have long loved their "casas rurales", "pueblos con encanto", and there has certainly long been a tradition of hiking the 'Camino de Santiago'. But it's only really been in the last 20 years that trail maintenance has improved in many of Spain's previously unnoticed sierras, and hiking is starting to become a real industry here. For this reason, even though it is not a central focus of the blog, I'm highlighting Spain's hiking tourism here, to encourage you all to add it to your list of must-dos when visiting.

One never needs to travel far in Spain for beautiful mountain views.
El Garbí, seen here, is a classic hiking day trip from Valencia.

(5) My publications page (5)

Being one of the few English-language bloggers in Valencia with stay power (that is, here for more than a year-long study abroad), I've occassionally been invited to write articles and publish photos for various online venues. This spring I created a page where I list them:

Highlights would include my year-long photo collaboration with 24/7 Valencia, regular guests posts for The Spain Scoop, reposts by, and the article on Fallas that I got published in Roads & Kingdoms. I encourage you to check it out, read them, tell your friends about them, etc. Really, folks, I make no money off this, so the only payment you can provide me are your kind words in the comments below and by helping me to achieve immortality as a famed writer.

Don't worry Valencia! I love you! You are my home! I will be back, I promise!

June 20, 2014

Teaching English as a Second Language, pt. 4: Five Final Ready-Made Lessons

Every language has its challenges, but spelling
and pronunciation is the only nonsensical aspect
of English that I ever find myself apologizing for.
Schoooooool's out for sum-mer! Schooooooool's out for-ev-er! Last day of classes today for the 2013-2014 academic year. Another year of teaching English to Spaniards has inspired another handful of ideas for TEFL lessons. With this set of five (okay, maybe there are really more here), and my previous three blog entries (here, here, and here), you now have 25 lessons total, more than enough to supplement most language books to add spontaneity to the classroom.

I won't count it as a lesson, but one impromptu conversation class I gave proved very successful: bring a printed copy of a simple restaurant menu (I used this one) to your class and talk about ordering food at a restaurant. To make it interactive, I split students into groups of 2 or 3, and had them take turns playing the customer and the waiter, and ordering from the menu. (Before starting, review how to use “would” to create polite expressions (I would like to have the… Would you like…?)

One of the hardest, but also funnest things to talk about are the cultural differences that shape
language etiquette. In general, English speakers use a lot of polite language and
apologize profusely (read about it here). But beware, that doesn't mean they're necessarily genuinely nice,
and there is a lot of regional variation with your "pleases and thank yous" and cursing more generally

***Lesson 21: Cursing – How to Curse Like an English Sailor***

"Thundering typhoon" and "blistering barnacles"
some of the creative cursing euphemism that
Captain Haddock is known to use.
There are many reasons why it is worth setting aside a ful class (an hour and a half even) to explain to your adult students the wonderful, dynamic world of English swear words. For one, they're motivated. It is a rare students who isn't very curious to learn them. Also, I sometimes feel like my most epic challenge with students is getting them to appreciate how flexible and playful language can be... that it evolves. Curse words often sit at the forefront of that evolution, as rebellious teenagers appropriate taboo or marginalizing language and embrace it as a counterculture. Finally, many swearing expressions build on phrasal verbs, and heck, that's the main thing many of my adult students are trying to master.

I owe a debt of gratitude to a colleague for making this class more substantial. She gave me a handout she made for the verb “to fuck”, and a photocopy of an excerpt from a book on taboo words, from which I grabbed the two visuals, one on “shit” and the other degree of taboo meaning. I've built on that and created this handout, as part of a more systematic way to present cursing to students:

Click here to load a PDF of my Cursing Vocabulary handout.

It is likely that your students will have heard many curse words already, and for this reason I recommend you start the lesson with a class brainstorm of what they already know. It is also likely that their understanding of these words is quite literal, and that they are thus missing the richness and nuance in meaning of many of the more figurative expressions they’ve heard. As demonstrated in my handout, I divide the blackboard in half and, as students give examples (usually with great enthusiasm and pride in their knowledge of the profane), I place them on the positive versus negative meaning side, to illustrate the first big point: that (like “de puta madre” in Spain) we use curse words to also say something is insanely great. Next I walk them through a discussion of the degree of taboo, as illustrated in this chart below. (At some point, I take them along a detour of body parts, to talk about polite versus varying degrees of impolite words for them.) Then, I talk more in depth about phrasal verbs with "fuck" and expressions with "shit". And next to last I mention some euphemisms we use for those moments a curse word almost slips out, but we then switch it to an innocuous one (e.g. "Shit!" –> "Shoot!"; or "¡Mierda!" –> "¡Miércoles!").

This list is either out of date or inaccurate. Screw is not that taboo, nor is, so far as I can tell these days,
the word "wank" in Britain. Still, the basic idea of this list is helpful for opening up a discussion
about which words/phrases are strong (e.g. "Fuck you!"), and which aren't (e.g. "Fuck it! I give up!)

Needless to say, the list of words on this handout is hardly comprehensive. I suppose at a university one could teach an entire course about cursing and still manage to forget an expression. Which brings me to the last point: with cursing above all, meaning and usage is dynamic and changes quickly. For any negative label, for example, the labeled group in question might turn it around and embrace it, undermining its power to stigmatize (e.g.: “I’m your bitch.”; “I’m such a slut for attention.”; or the use by African Americans of ‘niggah’ amongst each other). I guarantee you this will be a fun class, and your students will learn something, too. (And it might help them better follow American TV in the original language.)

Please 'pardon my French' in this English class...

Proviso: There is a dramatic difference in standards between the United States and Britain when it comes to cussing, which can be summarized as follows: in Britain, almost anything goes (even "the C word"!), though in polite company people hold back; in the U.S., there is much less cussing (the "C word" is very, very taboo), though certain words like fuck and shit are pretty common these days. So add this to your list of ways in which the U.S. and UK are two nations divided by a common language. (And don't believe the English when they act like they own the language. Many of the supposed Americanisms they disparage are, in fact, often British in origin, like "soccer".)

It might not hurt to take a moment to talk about the importance of correct pronunciation
of English vowels
, as this cartoon from a fun blog by a Korean-Australian couple addresses.
"Beach" is to "bitch" as "sheet" is to "shit" (and "eat" to "it", "each" to "itch", etc.).

***Lesson 22: 10 Common Mistakes on the First Certificate Exam – E.g. the Saxon Genitive... a.k.a. "possessive S"***

Another one of my colleagues went to a weekend FCE workshop this year on the 'Common FCE Mistakes' to look for. A conversation with him lead to the following class idea. (Isn't it wonderful working with talented, motivated and creative colleagues! If you're in Valencia, you can find them at the American Institute, one of the oldest and highest calibre private language academies in the city.) Looking over the list of common errors my colleague brought from that workshop, I tweaked, extended, and elaborated substantially on them, to create this more detailed list of typical mistakes that you can easily spend a class discussing with your students at some point:

Click here to load a PDF of my 10 FCE Mistakes/Saxon Genitive handout.

After giving the first such class, I further talked with my colleague about the Saxon Genitive, and he recited a standard TEFL position: when it's a person, use the "possessive S", when it's not, don't! I begged to differ, offering counter examples, leading to an extended discussion with him over several days, at the end of which I had a much better idea of why I disagreed with him, even though I did not sway him to my position. The outcome was Pages 3 & 4 in the above handout, my much more extended explanation of how the "possessive S" is and isn't used with certain place names and certain objects/animals. Teachers, it is worth spending half an hour with them on this issue, giving examples and explaining unusual cases. Proviso: this is not so much a handout for students as it is a guide for teachers on what to talk with your students about, listing different example problems on the blackboard.

For a laugh, you can tell your students about the many common mistakes that
native English-speakers make with their own gosh darn language.

***Lesson 23: Some Odds and Ends for the Kids – Another Xmas handout***

It was another year with the same group of kids, so I had to think up a new Christmas activity. Last year was Rudolph, so this year it seemed right to go with the cartoon classic, Frosty the Snowman. If Rudolph introduces dashing and dancing, Frosty introduces cold weather vocab, not to mention a new song to sing with them:

Click here to load a PDF of my Kid's Frosty Xmas handout.

While I have no hand out for it, I also had a nice ad hoc class with some of my kids on Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (1958). You can find the video here, and it works well with the chapter I did with them on camping and exploration vocabulary. It’s also a must if you want to introduce them to America’s wilderness/frontier heritage.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, classic Americana

***Lesson 24: Adjectives, Emphasis and Other Weighty Words***

There’s really not much to say about this handout, except that a student requested info on correct adjective word order, so I worked up a quick and easy handout using information from a few sites online. The basic line is that the order follows the acronym – OSASCOMP: Opinion, Size, Age, Shape, Color, Origin, Material, and Purpose. Your students need to know this, but don’t need more than a 5-minute explanation. I focus on the first and last categories: that the first adjective is always Opinion, and the last just before the noun always Purpose. And then I illustrate a few examples of how swapping order sometimes changes meaning (e.g. “a steel brick museum” versus a “a brick steel museum”) and sometimes doesn’t, but simply sounds wrong (e.g. “a new big book”). With time and practice they’ll get the hang of it:

Click here to load a PDF of my OSASCOMP Adjectives handout.

You know what's a big no-no? Making
an excellent meme about the usage of
English language and having a typo in it.
Can you find it?
While not directly related to adjective word order, I got another useful 5-minute class discussion from a meme using the following English sentence: “I never said she stole my money”. While in Spanish there are certain circumstance when one can play with word stress to change meaning, it is not as common as in English. (This is why my wife and I are regularly falling into the following trap: I want to know how a Spanish word is spelled so I emphasize the vowel I'm unsure about: "So it's estrateg-i-a, with an "i"?" Only to have my wife reply: "No. It's estrat-e-gia. The stress is on the "e"!" to which I get frustrated because I knew that... but, of course, in Spanish changing the stress in a word makes it wrong, or different.) To explain this difference in English, I write the seven word sentence above on the blackboard, and tell my students that with different word stress it can have seven different meanings. I then read it repeatedly, each time changing the stress and explaining how that version is different from the others. Their minds are blown!

In addition to word order, you have to be careful with hyphens and commas.

***Lesson 25: How to Conjugate Every Verb in the English Language 
– My Magnum Opus***

Every year when I teach the conditional tenses in my First Certificate class, the challenge has been getting students to break free from the formula, “If… [conditional clause], [hypothetical consequence clause]”. I like diagramming, my mind likes a good analytic challenge, and one day I started to diagram out for my students what I ostentatiously described as “how to conjugate every verb in the English language”. The result was this overly-complicated diagram:

Click here to load a PDF of my English Verb Conjugation handout.

This is not really a handout as it is a strategy for drawing it for them on the board. I start by drawing the chart with verb forms (simple, passive, continuous, perfect), explaining how some use an auxiliary verb (be or have), and what their function is (in red below the columns). I then explain that there are really only three times (ignoring future, of course): infinitive, present, and past. We fill this out together so they can see how that works for specific verbs. I take a detour: explain the auxiliary verb "do", different from the other two auxiliaries "have" and "be". And then I explain three ways to combine verbs to construct more complicated verb expressions: 1) the general rules of first verb determining the form of second verbs, 2) how to create the "subjunctive" in English using past tenses (and not to confuse "past simple" with the past in such cases), and 3) how to use certain modal verbs to create the "conditional" tense in English.

This is what the blackboard looked like after one of my conjugating English verbs clinics.

What good comes of this? Well, first of all, at a basic level it teaches them to think of auxiliary verbs as different from main verbs, and that you NEVER use “do” with the others. (A corollary benefit is it introduces the concept of stress using uncontracted auxiliary verbs (e.g. "I have been doing it, everyday!" ... instead of "I've been doing it everyday.").) Second, they can start to think of using modal verbs to construct stand-alone hypothetical statements (e.g. "I would like that." "I shouldn’t have done that."). Third, and perhaps it sounds stupid, but it ruptures this completely false idea that many of them have that the infinitive for verbs in English is the same as present simple (particularly problematic when you tell them that modal verbs require second verbs to be infinitive, but then they see: "would have had"... hint: which is the "perfect infinitive").

How many times have I heard Spaniards say that “at least in English conjugating verbs is easy”? With this chart they discover that English’s virtue (no specialized conjugated forms for subjunctive and conditional), is also its weakness (dependence on virtual conjugated forms using modals and past tenses).

This is the kind of absurd arm-chair cultural-lingual explanation I run into all the time.

April 30, 2014

Pueblos con encanto: Peñíscola and the Papa Luna

The iconic view of Peñíscola's seaside castle on a hill
If there are two towns that I consider to be an absolute must-visit for those who come to Valencia, they are Albarracín (more on it another day) and Peñíscola. An easy, short day trip train-ride away from the regional capital, Peñíscola offers you that quintessential Spanish Mediterranean experience, a castle by the sea. For this reason, and because of some interesting historical and cultural features, not to mention culinary highlights, I'm adding it here to my photo recollection blog entry series on "pueblos con encanto" that visitors should prioritize should they ever have an extended stay in the region.

I revisited Peñíscola a couple of months ago with a friend and colleague who had never been. The first thing he commented on was how much it reminded him of Greece, above all because of its white seaside buildings. Now this is no lazy comparison, since my friend is Greek American and has lived in and has family in Greece. It is striking, given that this similarity is not true for most Spanish seaside villages (with a notable exception, perhaps, for Menorca).

Putting aside this passing resemblance, what defines Peñíscola is its medieval castle. Like most Spanish castles, a fort turned castle had been built and rebuilt on this spot for centuries. The town's name comes from the Roman "Paene Iscola", meaning "casi isla" or almost an island (i.e. a peninsula). The present-day castle came into being in the 13th and 14th centuries, built by —take notes Dan Brown— the Knights Templar. Unfortunately, you have to pay extra to visit the part of the castle where they talk about that, and I'm too cheap to bother. (Note: it was a bright, sunny day, and I was experimenting with my new polarizing filter to get more brilliant blue skies. My apologies for the blackened edges in the photos.)

The castle's most famous denizen, "El Papa Luna", a.k.a. Benedict XIII, came to reside here in the 15th century, an antipope who preferred to live in Spain than renounce his Vatican-rejected claim on the popedom. His family name Luna, "moon" in Spanish, and the use of the crescent moon in his family seal, are why you'll see crescent moons all over the castle and town. (Admit it, "el Papa Luna" is an even cooler sounding pope name than "el Papa Paco".)

Somehow, every time I visit Peñíscola I manage to find this artisan ceramics shop closed.
The Papa Luna figurines in Cerámica Yvan look adorable and would be wonderful souvenirs!

Now as if seeing a castle on a cloud by the sea is not enough, it just so happens that this quaint seaside village was the site for not one, but two popular movies. The better known would be El Cid, the 1961 blockbuster movie starring Charleston Heston (in the title role) and Sophia Loren. Yep, if you look closely in that famous battle scene on a beach by a castle —you know, the one where Heston, err El Cid charges down all those Moors on his horse— well, that was filmed in Peñíscola. It's that castle.

Personally, I love like the other movie filmed here, Calabuch (1956), directed by my favorite of Spanish directors, Berlanga. This movie has it all: endearing small-town, Franco-era Spain antics, Cold War politics turned into lighthearted pyrotechnic play, and even an American rocket scientist having fun with locals on a much needed seaside vacation from the worries of the world. (Even the name of the movie gets a chuckle, since it is a Castilian parody of a common Valencian surname, Calabuig... the "ig" at the end is pronounced like a "ch".) What is most jarring of all watching these movies is seeing how undiscovered Peñíscola was back when they were filmed. The castle stood alone. Now the town littered, plagued filled with seaside hotels and resorts with a thriving tourism trade.

Credits to this site for the image and detailed explanation of the movie.

Following my standard "pueblos con encanto" day-trip formula, we ended our tour with superb local food at an excellent, a little pricey well-reputed restaurant: Casa Jaime. Their specialties are, naturally, seafood and rice dishes, but they have a signature dish that we could not resist ordering – the "Arroz Calabuch" created in honor of Berlanga when he visited, and which includes a local type of sea anemone and sea cucumber. (On top of being totally original, it was delicious!)

I should add, the service was also excellent.
They take pride in their food.

March 23, 2014

Valencia's Fallas 2014, another hangover post

This was my first year Instagramming Fallas, an interesting
challenge. This picture was my most popular post.
Another year, another Fallas hangover post. (The hangover was a little longer this year, thus a later post.) This entry serves as my visual recap of the last few weeks here in Valencia, the madness and glory that is was Fallas 2014. I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I've done four of these now, and yet with each Fallas I learn something new, and experience something different. There is so much going on, and what's more Fallas evolves over time, such that I expect to spend a lifetime discovering new angles on and dimensions to Valencia's famous spring festival. 

Fallas Behind the Scenes:
This year I did something different. I've long believed this festival doesn't get the appreciation it deserves in terms of its creativity, totality, craftsmanship, and all-around coolness. I've also wanted an excuse to peal back the surface of the mid-March festival fun, and peer a little deeper into the world behind Fallas. So I took on the role of journalist and cultural writer, and arranged to interview people who worked in the various industries that literally put this festival together: the falleros themselves, indumentaria (dress-makers), pirotecnia (fireworks specialists), and artistas falleros (falla artists). (On Instagram I even created a special hashtag, #Fallasbehindthescenes, for my photo posts related specifically to that work.) The product of this investigation was a series of articles and photo spreads that I highly recommend you check out:
1) Xaq Frohlich, "City on Fire" Roads & Kingdoms (12 March 2014) - Discussion of the three main industries behind Fallas and interviews with representatives from each: indumentariapirotecnia, and artistas falleros. 
2) Zach Frohlich, "Falla del Ayuntamiento" InVLC (March 2014), pp. 10-17. - Interview with Manolo García, carpenter artístico who did this year's Ayuntamiento Moses falla and Nou Campanar Menina falla 
3) Not Hemingway's Spain monthly photo-spread for 24/7 Valencia - March 2014: "Fallas Photos" + "Fallas in Valencia" 
4) March 2014: Zach Frohlich, "Valencia's Fallas" Travel Chronicles (March 2014 Issue on "Fiesta") - This is a syndication of my old 2012 Fallas post, but redone in a very classy, professional way.

This is, so far, the most professional thing I've written on Fallas,
and I'm proud of it. If you've enjoyed the blog,
I encourage you to give this a read.

I got a lot of additional material from my research that didn't make it into print, so I hope to keep publishing more about this whole universe behind the scenes for Fallas. (Maybe I'll even eventually write a book.) You can check out my new "Publications" page here, from time to time, to see the things I write for the world beyond this blog.

Another thing I did that was way overdue was to take an old post I used as a reference on Valencia and Fallas, and make a separate, permanent page. So for your future reference on all things Valencia and Fallas, I direct you to this page: "Valencia and Fallas in a Nutshell". This year I added some new bells and whistles, in particular a new map that you can download when visiting Valencia during Fallas, to know where the main fallas are. (I plan to update it each year.)

A map of the 2014 Special Section Fallas entries, where to find them.DOWNLOAD A PRINTABLE MAP HERE

But enough about me, let's get down to Fallas 2014...

A Baker's Dozen:
This year I set out with the goal to see all the Sección Especial fallas, and I failed. (I saw 10 out of 12!) Man, are there a lot of things to do in Fallas! The Falla Malvarrosa has become my white whale. I don't know if I'm ever going to manage to see it. I also somehow managed to miss one of my usual favorites, Falla Almirante-Cardaso. Others that I wish I had seen, whose "bocetos" (sketches) looked coolMaestro Gozalbo, Ciscar-Burriana, Grabador Esteve-Cirilo Amoros, Quart-Extramuros... and more. 

Still, I did pretty well making the rounds, seeing most of the big fallas and a bunch of other classics or up-in-coming stars. I list my favorite 2014 fallas here, in no particular order. Most are the usual suspects, the must-see fallas that everyone was talking about this year...

(1) Ayuntamiento

(2) Nou Campanar

(3) El Pilar – Winner of Sección Especial

(4) Sueca

(5) L'Antiga Campanar

(6) Cuba-Literato Azorín

(7) Na Jordana

(8) Exposición

(9) La Merced
[Not sección especial, but one of my favorites this year]

(10) Convento-Jerusalén

(11) Regne de Valencia

(12) Mercado

(13) [Insert your local falla here]… For me, Trinitat!

Other Important Fallas Festival Elements:

• The lights displays... 

Winner: Sueca-Literato Azorín

Should have won?: Cuba-Literato Azorín

Personally, I like a beautiful light tunnel, so for me this year I thought Cuba's light display was more beautiful than Sueca's, though in our group opinion was divided.

The light chandelier was cool!

• The 2014 "ninot indultat"... by popular demand...

I'm pleased to say that this was the ninot I voted for at the Exposició del Ninots. I'm very happy to know that it will live a long, comfortable, flame-free life in the Fallas Museum.

• Political commentary...
Once again the big question was how far fallas would go in their political critiques. It's an interesting question these days, given the balance between falleros' desire to keep Fallas clean for a visiting tourist public, and Valencians' genuine frustration and anger over the extended economic crisis, which among other things has hurt their favorite festival. You still had the regulars appearing as ninots. Here's just a small sampling...

Very cool, old-school falla in El Carmen

While the Na Jordana falla had less of an impact overall visually,
it won lots of praise for its sharp play on words and incisive political
commentary on Spain's banks. The theme this year: "Tirant lo banc"
(transl: Tossing the banks), a play on the classic Valencian
novel, "Tirant lo blanch".

"Don Dinero" controlling the marionette bankers in the Convento-Jerusalén falla

Rajoy, dressed only in the envelops his party used to illegally enrich themselves with

Spain's King with bionic legs. The king has had numerous surgeries this year
and yet refuses to retire and make way for new leadership.

• It's the little things that count...
Cats, cats, cats!
Examining the details in each falla is the real joy and heart of falla-trekking, the zooming in on and deciphering the curious, elegant, odd, frightening, or bizarre ninots scattered throughout a falla. I had the impression that this year's fallas were a little less baroque than other years, a sign of the economic crisis and smaller budgets. However, there was still too much for the eye to take in, in terms of dozens and dozens of detailed ninots, in dozens and dozens (really hundreds and hundreds) of fallas. You can pick a theme and compare it across fallas. (Chic Soufflé wrote another nice post on the cats that appear in different fallas this year.) Or you can simply admire the random, individually beautiful ninot that stands out. Here are some of my favorite pics from this year...

Elegant quetzal in the Sueca falla

Cute scene in the Convento-Jerusalén falla infantil

An Einstein ninot! Brilliant!

I don't usually pay the entrance fees that some fallas charge to people who want to look at the falla up close. But this year I made an exception for the Nou Campanar Meninas falla, for two reasons. First, half the proceeds of tickets went to a cancer organization, which I think is noble of them. And second, inside the giant Menina's skirt was a hidden exhibit with dozens of miniature meninas each made by a different falla artist student. It was really interesting, and I am now considering making a point of paying the entrance to one or two fallas every year.

This paella menina was made of rice. Doesn't get more Valencian than this!

Other odds and ends...
It is difficult to compress into this single blog entry the myriad of other things that pop up here and there in Valencia during Fallas. Here are a couple of pictures of other common distractions one can find here during the festival...

In the last couple of years, this ferris wheel, reputed to be the largest mobile one in Europe,
has become a new fixture of Fallas. I didn't get a chance to go up in it, but I bet the views are great!

A "globotà", a.k.a. balloon mascletà for kids. It is things like this that,
for me, best bring home the realization that Fallas is a total cultural experience
for Valencians. That teachers and parents would think up something
as cute and original as a balloon-popping fest for the little falleros
shows how deep this festival runs.

The look on this kid's face at the candy stand. Priceless!
(Not shown: the look on my face at the candy stand. Priceless!)

Little trinkets I bought this year at the falla markets, to remember Fallas 2014!

Falleros/falleras... La Ofrenda... 
These are the real protagonists of Fallas. This year, while watching the many, many falleros parading to the Plaza de la Virgen for La Ofrenda, I was particularly struck by how so many unique personal stories all converge together in Fallas. Thousands of stories that together make up this magnificent festival. I truly hope UNESCO takes this into consideration when it assesses Spain's bid to make Fallas a Intangible Cultural Heritage. So let's post some more photos, of falleras...

Little fallerita! Cute!

Caught the fallera mayor infantil getting into her getaway car after one of the mascletàs

Plaza de la Virgen in the evening at the end of the Ofrenda, covered in flowers

This year I wanted to round out my study of Fallas by seeing a few events that I hadn't yet been to, namely the Macro Despertà, La Cridà, and the Cabalgata del Fuego. I had interviewed Jose Crespo, a pirotécnico and owner of Pirotecnia Valenciana, so I was particularly sensitive to the work these guys do behind the scenes to create one of Fallas's most magnificent elements – Valencian fireworks.

The result is that Fallas 2014 for me is the year of fireworks. I saw some incredible feats of wonder from fire and gunpowder. Valencians truly are pyromaniacs, but they do it with class!

• The Macro Despertà... a parade of firecrackers...
I made one mistake: I didn't bring a bandana to cover my mouth. The result was that I inhaled a lot of smoke at the macro despertà. But I highly recommend this parade of thousands of falleros tossing petardos (firecrackers). It's incredible, and a bit surreal.

• The Cridà... towers lit up with fire and light...
The opening ceremony of Fallas was alright, worth it above all just to see the Torres de Serranos bathed in colorful lights and then watch fireworks shoot out of it.

Mascletàs... a symphony of gunpowder...
Pim, pam, pum! Awesomeness! Never any disappointments with the mascletàs. There is a reason locals call them "a symphony of gunpowder". The point and counterpoint of explosions is both elegant and deafening. I saw more mascletàs this year than ever before, a total of seven! Each one was incredible, and here I share some highlights...

Pirotecnia Valenciana setting up a mascletà

The distinctive Aerial mascletà on the afternoon of March 1st over Alameda.

Moses had to endure numerous mascletàs in the last week of Fallas

Fireworks specialist in the mascletà cage, putting the final touches on a mascletà

Colored smoke like this is a new element in mascletàs,
and I think the pirotecnia companiesare playing with it more and more.

The biggest new experience for me was that I saw my first mascletà from a balcony!!!! It was awesome! (How will I ever go back?) Here's a heavily reduced pixelated the video I took of it. (You will notice a moment in the video when I freak out from the sound, and start to hide behind the window frame. It was intense!):

• Cabalgata del Fuego... playing with fire...
I wasn't sure what to expect with this fairly recent addition to Fallas: a small Carnaval-style parade of fire-demons and firecrackers on the last day of Fallas. Again, much like the Cridà, what made this worth it was the fireworks show at the end, getting to see them fire out of the Puerta del Mar. (The fire demons were also pretty fun, baptizing the crowd in flame.)

The fallera mayor makes an appearance at the Cabalgata del Fuego

I was a little worried my camera might get scorched by these guys!

Weird giant fire beetle.

Beautiful metal and fire dragon.

Castillos... nights of fire in the sky...
This year firework shows did not disappoint!!! I saw the March 16th and the March 18th Nit del Foc. This was my first unobstructed, complete Nit Del Foc. (Three times I've tried before, and three times I've failed: 1st time late because of dinner, the second time a partial view because of arriving at the last minute with crowds, and the third time I passed out in the middle of it!) I never cease to be amazed by the way Valencians play with multiple levels of action in their fireworks shows. (Americans, take note.) There is an interplay of explosions above, in the middle, and below, that is dazzling. This year's Nit del Foc show might be the most elegant, beautiful fireworks I've seen in my life.

La cremà, or what money looks like when you burn it...
This year I chose to watch the Ayuntamiento Falla cremà. I had interviewed the artist who built it, Manolo García, and had even been inside the wooden structure for Moses, when Manolo invited me to check it out in his workshop. So it seemed fitting to be there when they burned it.

Inside Manolo García's fallas workshop

Beautiful wooden structure interior of the giant Moses falla for the Ayuntamiento, itself a work of abstract art

Me inside the base of Moses! I was very excited and surprised when
Manolo invited me to go in. And he's a joker, because at one point he closed and sealed the door
behind me. Though I joked that I was fine staying there until the cremà.

This year la cremà took on a new feeling for me. After a month of covering fallas, interviewing, reading, and writing about it, I really was ready to watch it burn. So I think I'm beginning to understand why the falleros need this. It really is cathartic, the turning of the page and close of chapter. I woke up March 20th happy that Fallas 2014 was behind me. Ready for the start of Valencia's new year!

Lessons Learned:
As I said two years ago, each year I learn something new. I made a list there of "lessons learned", worth a glance for any of you Fallas newbies. Here I share a few more insights I've picked up this year...

1) Don't try to see everything. Just come back again. There really is too much to see in just four days. Heck, this year I cheated and saw a lot of things pre-Plantà. Your best bet is simply to plan to return to Fallas another year, and make a list of top choices for this one. This year my focus was on the fireworks elements. I think next year I'm going to focus on the fallero community... maybe the dresses, the street parties, who knows! But, trust me, you can't see it all. So relax and try and take in as much as you can.

2) Beware of crazy outsiders who have no sense of etiquette with firecrackers. No, really. Have you ever noticed how it is almost never the falleros causing trouble with petardos?!? It's sad, but this kind of reckless behavior is what creates Fallas-haters here. If you're a crazy outsider reading this, please take note: don't ruin everyone else's party. Be respectful. Be safe.

Beware of these crazed lunatics during Fallas, tossing petardos every which way!

3) If you can see an event with a Fallas first-timer, do it! This year various friends visited, some from Madrid, others from the States. Needless to say, I could not resist going with them to their first mascletàs. There is no look quite like the expression of disbelief, fear intermingled with childish excitement, on the face of a mascletà first-timer in the final 30 seconds of terremoto. It's a rush! I also never get tired of hearing Americans agree that 4th of July fireworks shows got nothing on Valencia's Nit del Foc. Sorry patriotic Americans, but it's an indisputable fact.

And that's it. "It's over. Go home." Come back next year. That's right, on March 20th everyone goes back to work and doesn't look back much. No lingering, no wistfulness. I used to think the cremà burning on the 19th was the end of Fallas, but not anymore. Now I know it's the start of next year's Fallas. Like the mythical phoenix, Fallas 2015 is born from the ashes of Fallas 2014. So there's no need to be sad about it. It'll be back again next year. Hopefully you will, too!

Por qué quemamos las fallas? Why do we burn fallas?

Answer: because we can't start on next year's Fallas until we do!

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